These days the big powers, along with their embedded corporate media, like to undermine independent states by branding them as either 'dictatorships' or 'populist' regimes. The first label suggests generalised repression, though of greatest concern is the repression of corporate privilege; the second suggests some form of deceptive demagoguery.
Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez, in life and death, was branded both a 'dictator' and a 'populist'. In fact, he was neither. What he did, as Luis Bilbao and William Robinson note, was lead Latin America's break with neoliberalism and 'put socialism back on the public agenda'.
The impact of this is still being felt
Chávez was also the main driver behind south-focussed regional integration in the Americas, initiating both the eight-nation ALBA group and the 34 member CELAC, a clear counter-weight to the Washington-controlled Organization of American States (OAS). He therefore leaves a powerful regional legacy.
In Venezuela Chávez won successive election victories, gaining between 55% and 63% of the vote, in an electoral system described by former US President Jimmy Carter as 'a model for other democracies'. You might not appreciate this, from the corporate media. In one of the many half-truths and outright lies peddled daily about Chávez, Alejandro Chafuen in Forbes magazine claims Chávez was 'one of the most unpopular' Latin American leaders. He cites polls by Latinobarometro in other parts of Latin America, where the man was demonised by the corporate media. However within his own country (which is what matters in any democracy) Chávez had great popularity. Indeed Latinobarometro shows that Venezuelans rated satisfaction with their own democracy very highly (7 out of 10, in 2010), an achievement reinforced by the near doubling in participation rates at Presidential elections, to more than 80% in 2012.
Populism means over-blown rhetoric, hand-outs and empty promises; but Chávez, with the style of a populist, went well beyond this. In the best traditions of social democracy he fomented broad participation, widening rights through a new constitution, mass education and health services and giving ordinary people a real say in their own communities. The central government used oil money to directly fund a wide range of social programs, cooperatives, local communal councils and communities.
Former Chávez adviser Marta Harnecker pointed out that Chávez, as a charismatic leader, communicated with the style of a populist, but he helped people organise: 'that is not populism; it is revolutionary leadership'.
An important test of the resilience of the Chávez legacy will come on 14 April, when his successor Nicolás Maduro stands against right wing candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. Maduro is a former transport union leader who worked with Chávez for two decades. Capriles became famous for his personal involvement in an attack on the Cuban Embassy during the 2002 US-backed coup. He was soundly defeated by Chávez in elections last October and few expect him to win in 2013. Polls put Maduro well in front. Majority support appears firm for the socialist transition program initiated by Chávez back in 2005.
None of this is good news for the international investor groups who still control most media channels, in Venezuela as elsewhere. Indeed, the anti-Chávez rhetoric has hardly abated with the man's death. Both Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper and US President Barack Obama claimed the death of President Chávez 'brings hope' to Venezuela.
Business magazine headlines read: 'Why Chávez was bad for Venezuela', 'Hugo Chávez leaves Venezuela in an economic muddle' and 'Chávez leaves legacy of economic disarray'. All this suggests a burning desire to tarnish the man's image, in attempts to rein in the Chávez bandwagon.
Why was Chávez so influential and so popular? It had much to do with the powerful social programs, in education, health, housing, food, social security, local infrastructure and land reform. Poverty fell dramatically. In 1999, when Chávez first came to office, household income poverty was 42% and extreme poverty 18.9%; in 2011 these figures had fallen by 35% (to 27.4%) and 71% (to 7.3%) (INE 2011). Inequality also fell from 48 to 39 on the Gini scale, by far the greatest improvement in Latin America. A key Chávez slogan was: 'the only way to reduce poverty is to empower the poor'. Beyond income measures, Venezuela's Human Development Index rank rose strongly, from the expansion in health services and education.
Chávez recognised and returned land to indigenous communities and invested much of the country's oil wealth in people and communities that had been ignored and marginalised for decades, if not centuries. This helps explain the extraordinary reverence given to Chávez in the more humble parts of the country. For example, the January 23 community in Caracas, without waiting for Vatican approval, have opened their own shrine to 'Saint Hugo Chávez '. To them, he had performed real miracles.